Green Beret veteran returns to civilian life as a student athlete

Photo by UNC Media Hub Student photojournalist Adrian Tillman.


by Valerie Jackson
UNC Media Hub Student Correspondent

Throughout UNC-Chapel Hill’s club hockey season this year, a camo helmet with flashes of gold could be seen moving in and out of the goal. Under the mask is Joel Hughes, an Army veteran and junior at UNC. Hughes enlisted in the Army straight out of high school following the 9/11 terrorist attack. Now—at 39—he’s working toward his college degree, fitting in around hockey practice and running a household.

Raised in a military family, Hughes always had an interest in the service. He grew up surrounded by stories from family members and war movies. His passion for the military waned as he got to high school, with a new love taking its place: hockey.

Hughes was originally a baseball player throughout his childhood. Growing up in New England exposed him to hockey culture; his friends all played and convinced him to try it out. He fell in love with the sport and was being scouted to attend boarding schools to play hockey, but ultimately chose to stay close to his family. 

As a high schooler Hughes had no intention of attending college, and hockey took precedence over schoolwork. He also didn’t want to follow in his father’s footsteps and become a welder, so joining the Army was the plan.

Hughes got on a plane to Georgia for basic training at Fort Moore in June 2002, just four days after he graduated high school.

He eventually became a highly accomplished member of the Green Berets, working as a Special Forces Weapons Sergeant and touring in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen Joel really flustered, even under the worst circumstances,” said Jae Kim, a former detachment commander who served with Hughes in the Special Forces.

Thirteen years after meeting, the two still keep in touch. All these years later, Kim says that Hughes is still the same calm, driven man he met back on the Joint Base Lewis McChord in Washington.

“He really did a good job, always making preparations and setting a goal and achieving his goals. I saw that in his professional life and also his personal life,” Kim said.

In 2020, Hughes was stationed at Fort Bragg in Fayetteville as a parachute demonstrator with the Special Operations Command, the Black Daggers. The team performed air demonstrations at military events to promote the Special Forces. When the COVID-19 pandemic put their shows on hold, Hughes found himself with a lot of extra time on his hands and decided to enroll at Fayetteville Technical Community College, earning an associate’s degree in science in 15 months.

After getting his degree, Hughes continued the momentum and started researching universities. He narrowed it down to the two schools with the best sports sciences programs in the state, UNC-Chapel Hill and Campbell University. His decision was finalized over one simple factor: UNC has a hockey team and Campbell doesn’t.

While at Fort Bragg, Hughes was a goaltender for Camp Patriot, a non-profit hockey team on the base. One of his teammates recommended he try out for UNC’s club team.

“I was 37 turning 38 at the time and I was like, ‘There’s no way I’ll be able to play with these kids, right?’” he said.

After a few weeks of convincing, he reached out to the former coach for UNC’s team, Jeff Volkman. They spoke on the phone and Volkman invited him to come try out during a practice.

“It was funny in the locker room, the guys were pretty amazed when they found out I could be their father and that I was in combat before they were born,” Hughes said.

Hughes was offered a spot on the team with one condition: he needed to be accepted into UNC. That was the big push he needed to perfect his application.

By the start of the 2022 fall semester, Hughes was a student at UNC, practicing with the team, and retired from the military after 21 years of service.

Hughes now spends his days in Woollen Gym, working toward his degree in exercise and sports science. After dropping off his son at school in the morning he heads off to class himself, commuting an hour to Chapel Hill from Angier every weekday.

Hughes says he was never very academic in high school. Neither of his parents went to college, so there wasn’t much pressure to attend. Now that he’s a student again, the drive to succeed is there, but classes are challenging in a new way.

While in the military, Hughes was constantly surrounded by blasts and loud noise, which caused micro-traumatic brain injuries. As a result, he finds himself suffering from memory issues and brain fog, which makes learning new material and recall much harder than when he first enlisted.

There’s also the stress of feeling like a bit of an outsider at school. Only about 2% of college students in the United States are over the age of 24. Hughes has been the oldest student in almost every class, sometimes being mistaken for the professor on the first day of class.

On the ice, it’s no different. His age is low-hanging fruit for opposing teams, and fans are quick to jeer him.

“I hear everything on the ice, from getting a senior citizen discount to needing to go schedule my colonoscopy,” he said.

But Hughes has really found his niche within the team.

“I get treated just like everybody else. We’re all great friends and I love all the guys on the team,” he said. “I think having the overall experience really makes me appreciate UNC and Chapel Hill, and I have a little bit of regret – I wish I would have experienced it younger.”

Wills Kendrick-Holmes, a defender on the team, was raised in a military family like Hughes. Wills is in UNC’s ROTC program and plans to become a naval officer after graduation. Having a teammate like Hughes gives Kendrick-Holmes the opportunity to talk to someone with a similar story.

“He’s a role model; just hearing the experience that he shared with me and his stories are extremely valuable,” Kendrick-Holmes said.

The UNC hockey team has a history of ties to the military. Many of the guys have joined the team as active service members or veterans or gone on to serve after graduating.

Hughes displays his pride in his service through his goalie helmet, which is inspired by ‘Top Gun,’ specifically the character Maverick. It’s covered in white and gray camo with “HUGHES” in blue across the front, and Rameses is painted on both sides with his horns covered in gold leaf. On the back, seven different badges and tabs show off Hughes’ military success: One for graduating from sniper school, two for the Special Forces, one for combat infantry, two for parachuting, and one for the first unit he was in.

Above all else, “Thanks Dad” is written across his helmet in cursive: “I wouldn’t be playing for UNC or had any of my hockey experiences if it weren’t for him investing all that time and money into me playing,” Hughes said.

The Hugheses were not a hockey family. Aside from a cousin, Hughes was the only one to show any interest in playing. However, they were also not a wealthy family. Between skates, pads, gloves and a helmet, becoming a goalie was not a cheap process. It took a lot of convincing to get Hughes’ father to agree to buy all the gear and let him play.

Now, Hughes is a father to his own son, 13-year-old Jaxin. While there isn’t much overlap in their interests, they still find time to bond over music and movies together. Jaxin’s interest in the service only goes as far as video games and movies, which Hughes is more than fine with. He tries to steer him away from enlisting and encourages him to focus on school and attending college instead.

Life is a balancing act between being a dad, husband, goalie and student. His house has become a well-oiled machine to keep up with daily activities. In the middle of the kitchen is a giant calendar detailing where everyone needs to be at any given time.

Hughes’ wife, Holly Whittaker, is vital to keeping everything under control. Working as a team is essential for success in their house. Hughes and Whittaker take turns helping each other out to ease some of the stress that comes with being homeowners.

Despite spending so much time away, being on the hockey team has helped bring Hughes and Whittaker together. In 2023, the team traveled to Eastern Europe for a tournament. While most players were joined by their parents, Whittaker came to support Hughes. In between games, the trip became more of a romantic getaway, they describe it as their “hockeymoon.”

Hughes is taking a step back from goalkeeping to focus on school and his family; he played his final game with UNC on Feb. 5. Hughes now looks toward the future, hoping to continue working with athletes once he graduates in the fall. He is also taking time to reflect on his experience at UNC.

“I understand my path is different,” he said. “Everything encompassing really makes me appreciate being a student and future alumni at Chapel Hill.”

UNC Media Hub is a collection of Hussman School of Media and Journalism students who create integrated multimedia packages covering stories from around North Carolina. TLR is proud to support our UNC journalists of the future.

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